Chicagoans commemorate the Transgender Day of Remembrance

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 18, 2009

As night fell Saturday evening over Oak Park, a crowd of more than 100 gathered inside the suburb's New Spirit Church and sat before a stage scattered with candlelight. The mood on that rainy, overcast night was somber, befitting of the occasion: A vigil in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR.)

The vigil, sponsored by the Illinois Gender Advocates (IGA) in collaboration with Equality Illinois and several other organizations, was the first of a series of events commemorating the annual memorial event in Chicago. The event was, according to IGA chair Cyndi Richards, a huge success due both to its strong turnout and the poignant words of its keynote speaker, Vanessa Edwards Foster. Foster was a principal organizer of the original TDOR, a 1999 vigil in San Francisco that honored Rita Hester, whose Nov. 1998 murder in her Boston apartment remains unsolved to this day.

"The primary purpose of this event is to get the word out to as many people about transgender murder and transgender violence, which I refer to as cultural assassinations," Richards said. "The second aspect is that the event is basically a large wake, a memorial service for the dead."

Those honored at this year's memorial included 162 documented trans victims of murder from Turkey to Texas and Malaysia to Michigan. Speaking on the lives of those lost, Foster noted the grassroots efforts of those who had come before to transform the event from a local demonstration to an international campaign. She challenged the audience to speak out against anti-trans violence with the same courage of previous activists and victims of hate.

"These victims are not heroes just because they were murdered. Heroism is more deliberate than that, and it is done consciously," Foster said. "That said, they lived courageous lives, many in countries where simply leaving their house could mean their last day had arrived. People speaking out has made all the difference. When the time comes for you, will you speak out?"

In addition to the vigil's role of lending visibility to trans people and those lost to anti-trans violence, others in attendance at the event noted its importance as the one day a year when the sometimes fragmented trans community can come together as one with a common goal: The elimination of violence and living without fear.

"I think it's really significant that [TDOR provides] the space to come together as a community, though we are usually splinted over generations and other identity groups," Kate Sosin, an organizer with Genderqueer Chicago, said. "We need to send a message out to the wider community that these murders are ongoing. It's not only about honoring the dead, but changing the circumstances for the living."

Existing circumstances for trans Chicagoans may be better than many other places around the world, but vast challenges continue to plague many in spite of recent legislative victories that include the passage of a trans-inclusive federal hate crimes law. Employment discrimination, barriers to health care, poverty and addiction are among the many problems trans people continue to face.

Casey Schwartz, the transgender youth specialist of the Howard Brown Health Center's Broadway Youth Center, said the situation was particularly dangerous for Chicago's trans youth, who often struggle with homelessness and police harassment in addition to the usual myriad of issues facing any young person.

"Our goal is to help folks make positive changes in their lives," Schwartz told EDGE. "I think it's important to acknowledge the barriers that we face in the real world. This is a real-life experience for some folks who do experience violence."

In order to combat existing barriers trans people continue to confront, in addition to the hope of blowing out fewer candles at next year's vigil, the leaders with whom EDGE spoke agreed on a simple take-home message from the event: Unity.

"We need to start watching out for each other and show solidarity as we are a minority within a minority," Richards said. "We need to put some unity back into community and put a face on the word 'transgender.'"

Sosin agreed as she added she felt it was important to pay particular attention to issues of privilege--particularly when it comes to trans youth of color.

"I think it's incredibly significant for us to bring younger and older generations of trans folk together, for the younger generation to understand our history and for the older generation to understand the unique issues facing trans people today and we need to understand each other as allies," Sosin said. "Unless we look at these issues in an anti-racist, anti-classist way, we won't do anything for our communities."

Transgender Day of Remembrance will be recognized Friday, Nov. 20, with a vigil at University of Illinois-Chicago's East Campus Quad from 12:30-2 p.m. and one at the University of Chicago's Bartlett Quad at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20. The TDOR will also be honored Saturday, Nov. 21, as part of the Center on Halsted's fifth annual Night of Fallen Stars that begins at 5:30 p.m. Trans performer Jaila Simms will be on hand.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.